Despite its history in Civil Rights, Birmingham is a more diverse city than people often think. Among the many ethnic groups that call the metro area home are Hispanics, who, in many cases, have lived in the community for decades, raising families, going to school supporting programs, paying taxes and doing all the things expected of citizens of any background.
There are contradictions faced by Latinos living here. On one hand, Birmingham embraces certain aspects of Hispanic culture: Day of the Dead — Dia de Los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo are popular yearly occurrences. And Birmingham is mere weeks away from celebrating its 13th annual Fiesta, a Hispanic Cultural Festival, which regularly draws thousands of diverse visitors from all over the community.
On the other hand, Birmingham is in Alabama, the state once known for having the most severe immigration law in the country. HB 56, which criminalized even acts of kindness shown toward undocumented immigrants, and drove many people to abandon the lives they were living here to flee elsewhere. The bill was sponsored by a large number of Alabama Legislators, including several from the Birmingham area and was decried across the country, and finally ruled to be largely unconstitutional.
So the question is, how, in the wake of all of that, do Latinos living in this area feel about their relationships with other parts of the community? Following up Weld’s August 4 cover story, “Thoughts on the Racial Divide,” this story examines the Hispanic experience as seen through the eyes of different individuals, including a prominent attorney and a man who works two jobs that might not seem to fit together, but which make him a leader in the community. But first, we start with a student.
Victor Palafox has been profiled in Weld before (in “The Impetus to Fight Injustice”), one of many occasions he has had to appear in the media. Now in college in another state, Palafox, a former student at the University of Alabama, has been featured on the cover of Time Magazine, in the Huffington Post and seen in numerous rallies protesting crackdowns on people who, like him, came to the U.S. illegally.
His was an outspoken voice against HB 56. His view of race relations and the Latino community is that of a young man who spent 17 years of his life in the Birmingham area.
Growing up, he said, things were not always rosy.
“When I came here at 7 years old there were very few people here but there were more people coming in, and so every other week, new Hispanic people would come in, a new person would come to the school system and a lot of people didn’t know how to deal with it,” he recalled. “And so my upbringing here for the most part was welcoming, until, I would say, middle school.”
In middle school, Palafox said, “that’s when people start becoming aware that other people are different.” It became crystal clear to him when one of his friends said, “Hey – you’re illegal.”
“I didn’t understand what that meant,” Palafox said, but he “felt a little bit unnerved by it. The older I got, the more I saw this sense of hostility from a lot of people…. Looking back on it now the students were just parroting what their parents were saying or what the parents thought. So, I don’t fault them much — but it was the adults.”
One such adult was a teacher in a middle school gifted class. Victor was sitting in the back of the room.
“So the teacher, who was a very well-educated woman said, ‘Hey Javier, can you turn off the lights?’ And I said, ‘Hey, my name’s not Javier.’ To which she was like, ‘Oh, you all look the same anyway.’ And so you have that. You have moments where guidance counselors are telling students who want to take advanced classes, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’re cut out for this class. We should put you in remedial something.’ Or when you have teachers saying, ‘Why are you trying so hard? You’re only going to go to community college anyway.’ So you have moments like these.”
Despite that, he said, “Alabama gave me opportunities that my own country did not. But at the same time I have to recognize that things are not as sweet as they could be for me and for other people.” And, he acknowledged, there were other teachers working hard to make life better for him and other Hispanic kids.
A few years later came the days of HB 56, which sparked fear in the community, he said. The impact of fear from HB 56 was immediate, he said. “People left, literally overnight. And people left not only the material things like a home, like a car or anything, but … the amount of time that they’ve been here, which is what, 10-20 years?”
He personally lost friends to that fear, like one young man who wanted to be a Marine, but left because he was afraid of arrest and deportation. Palafox still remembers the image of his friend pulling his Marine recruitment poster off the wall. “It would be dishonest for me to forget the people that left… They left devastated.”
On the other hand, he said, “I remember when HB 56 came around, a lot of people wouldn’t leave because they said ‘I built my life here my friends, and family [are] here. I have everything in the state. I’m not going to give it up that easily.’ And even the people who left – I know a woman who drove from Birmingham to Wisconsin. She got to Madison, lasted a week and came back, because she said, ‘Even with all this risk that I have because of this law, what I have in Alabama — it’s taken me too hard a time to attain for me to give it up that easily.’”
“So it’s really an interesting experience, because … to be Latino in Alabama is not to be Latino in New York or Miami or Los Angeles. It’s a completely different experience. Many people, including myself, have grown so attached to Alabama and established such deep roots that we couldn’t see ourselves living anywhere else.”
What about now? Palafox said that the experience of Hispanics appears to vary according to where a person lives.
“It depends on what part of Birmingham you’re in,” he said. The Hispanic community in Birmingham goes back decades, with groups of Latino families living in a number of communities around the city. “So when that happened, you had a lot of intermingling [with] the black communities — the historically black communities here in the city. If you’re in the city for the most part, depending on where you’re at, there is a general understanding of what the Hispanic community is, what is going to do, who we are, so on and so forth. But once you get outside to the different suburbs it really depends. It could be hit or miss.”
He said that in over-the-mountain suburbs, Hispanics have been more likely to report harassment by traffic stop. Non-Hispanic people might be less likely to interact regularly with Latino neighbors.
Still, he said that progress has been made, citing the rising number of Hispanic-owned businesses, and an FM radio station geared toward a Latino audience. And some of that progress can be seen in the schools, he said, noting that when he graduated from his high school in Shelby County he was one of 10 Hispanics both documented and undocumented.
“Last year the valedictorian from our high school was Hispanic, who came from a neighborhood, like, five minutes away from me,” Palafox said. “You go out to public schools, whether it be Homewood, whether it be Hoover and you have Hispanic students excelling academically, first generation or foreign born. You have these examples of just more roots going into the community and so I ask myself, ‘When will Birmingham elect its first Hispanic mayor… When will any of the suburbs elect a Hispanic mayor?’ …
“When I first started school, I started school in Hoover, I was I think maybe one of five students in the class and maybe one of seven in the entire grade who were Hispanic. So overtime through intermarriage, through, I guess, just building friendships, working relationships, the understanding of the Hispanic community has increased. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any tension.
“Overall, I would say that Hispanics in the city are becoming more visible, so now, we have an FM radio station, whereas 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been even a possibility. We have a lot of Hispanic businesses. More than anything, I would say you have a rising interest in the Hispanic community, I would say, from the traditional white community, the traditional black community. If you go to some Mexican stores, you’ll see just your average American doing their shopping alongside maybe newly arrived immigrants, and Hispanics … who have been here maybe 20 or 30 years. To me personally, it’s relieving to see that change, to see that intermingling.”
Still, he said, that despite the fondness Birmingham display for Hispanic culture, there is something missing. “Just for me, speaking as a Mexican, it’s that, Americans love Mexico but don’t particularly care for Mexicans. And the reason I say that, is here in Alabama, you have an interest in aspects of Latino culture whether it be the food, whether it be the music, but that’s often where it stops.
“So you’re concerned and you’re fascinated by the food or the music but not necessarily the person who is making it who is singing it or whose experiences are directly tied to that aspect of the culture.”
The opportunity for continually improving race relations, Palafox said, involves personal interactions. “It’s one thing to see a Hispanic person driving on the road or see them in the store, and it’s another thing to have a conversation with him,” Palafox said. “And it’s been my experience, speaking to a lot of other folks, that as soon as we finish the conversation it almost always ends with ‘Wow. I didn’t know this.’ We have much more in common than we thought before.”
Alabama, he noted, has experienced the second largest growth in its Latino population of any state in the union, as of the last Census. “For a state that had the second highest growth of the Hispanic community in the country, you don’t really see a lot of — whether it is businesses, or whether it is schools – reaching out to the Hispanic community as much as other parts of the country where the population might be even lower.”
That will have to change to meet the needs of the Hispanic population, which despite HB 56 or any signs of bias against them, have decided to make Alabama their home, he said.
“There are 49 other states that the Hispanic community here in Alabama could have chosen to make home. For whatever reason, they chose Alabama, and for whatever reason — personal, professional, whatever — the majority of them chose to stay in Alabama. Because the intended effect of HB 56 was to make life so unbearable that people would leave.
“And yes, some people left, but the majority of people stayed. And even for those who left, the majority of people came back. So you have to ask yourself, why did people want to be here so badly? What makes them want to stay here, when they could go anywhere else in the country?
“So, I think if you ask yourself that question, that will lead to more dialog, to more conversations — with not only with individual members of the Hispanic community but also different parts of it.
“So,” Palafox said, “I hope that with this piece that people do see the issue of race in Birmingham as more than black and white.”
Next week: the view from Hispanic professionals in Birmingham.